Constitution Sunday: Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “A Democratic Federalist”

Reply to Wilson’s Speech: “A Democratic Federalist”

Pennsylvania Herald (Philadelphia), October 17, 1787

Following are excerpts from the article, published in response to James Wilson’s speech:

“The arguments of the Honorable Mr. Wilson, expressed in the speech he made at the state-house on the Saturday preceding the general election (as stated in the Pennsylvania Herald,) although extremely ingenious and the best that could be adduced in support of so bad a cause, are yet extremely futile, and will not stand the test of investigation.”

“Under the enormous power of the new confederation, which extends to the individuals as well as to the States of America, a thousand means may be devised to destroy effectually the liberty of the press—There is no knowing what corrupt and wicked judges may do in process of time, when they are not restrained by express laws.”

“But Mr. Wilson has not stopped here—he has told us that a standing army, that great support of tyrants, not only was not dangerous, but that it was absolutely necessary.—O! my much respected fellow citizens! and are you then reduced to such a degree of insensibility, that assertions like these will not rouse your warmest resentment and indignation? Are we then, after the experience of past ages, and the result of the enquiries of the best and most celebrated patriots have taught us to dread a standing army above all earthly evils, are we then to go over all the thread-bare common place arguments that have been used without success by the advocates of tyranny, and which have been for a long time past so gloriously refuted!”

“Mr. Wilson says that he does not know of any nation in the world which has not found it necessary to maintain the appearance of strength in the season of the most profound tranquility; if by this equivocal assertion, he has meant to say that there is no nation in the world without a standing army in time of peace, he has been mistaken. I need only adduce the example of Switzerland, which, like us, is a republic, whose thirteen cantons, like our thirteen States, are under a federal government, and which besides is surrounded by the most powerful nations in Europe, all jealous of its liberty and prosperity: And yet that nation has preserved its freedom for many ages, with the sole help of a militia, and has never been known to have a standing army, except when in actual war.—Why should we not follow so glorious an example, and are we less able to defend our liberty without an army, than that brave but small nation, which with its militia alone has hitherto defied all Europe?”

“At present I shall only observe, that it is an established principle in America, which pervades every one of our State Constitutions, that the legislative and executive powers ought to be kept forever separate and distinct from each other, and yet in this new constitution we find there are two executive branches, each of which has more or less controul over the proceedings of the legislature. This is an innovation of the most dangerous kind upon every known principle of government, and it will be easy for me to convince my fellow citizens that it will, in the first place, create a Venetian aristocracy, and, in the end, produce an absolute monarchy.”

This Antifederalist response to James Wilson’s speech, which was one of the most articulate Federalist speeches in favor of adoption of the Constitution, captures several of the most fundamental differences between the Federalists and Antifederalists.

The concept of a standing army was repulsive to the Antifederalists, as their recent history had shown that a standing army was a symptom and a tool of tyranny. More than that, it was unnecessary. As this anonymous author reasoned, no appearance of strength that comes from a standing army is a price worth paying. Notably, the author looks to Switzerland, which in 1787 held a reputation similar to the one it enjoys now. It was and is a free and prosperous country, nestled with some of the greatest powers in Europe. The author encourages Americans to adopt the Swiss example, resisting the desire to create a standing army.

Then, the author also explores the proposed relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government. He finds that they are entirely too interrelated to be effective in preventing America from slipping into an aristocracy and ultimately a monarchy.

While James Wilson had the first word and set the tone for the Constitution in a reasonable, logical manner, in this rebuttal, Wilson was faced with an adamant, well-informed, and principled opposition.

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